Good god! It’s not enough that San Francisco embarrassed itself by renaming 44 schools, including those bearing the monickers of Dianne Feinstein, Abe Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Paul Revere. Now the city of Chicago, under the leadership of the increasingly embarrassing mayor Lori Lightfoot, is undertaking the same venture, singling out 41 monuments to be “investigated” for possible removal or renaming. The bowdlerization of my city is detailed in these two article from the Chicago Sun-Times and the New York Times (click on screenshots below):
You can see photos and descriptions of the scrutinized monuments on this page, and I have to say that there are almost none of them that I find worthy of removal, for they mark history, with all its flaws, and offense of some people is not sufficient to immediately mandate erasing a statue. (There are FIVE monuments to Abe Lincoln to be vetted!) And there are alternatives to removal, as I mention below.
Here are a few photos of statues being scrutinized, along with possible reason why they’re “problematic” (indented). Here are the criteria that the committee is considering:
Reasons for making the list include promoting narratives of white supremacy; presenting an inaccurate or demeaning portrayal of Native Americans; celebrating people with connections to slavery, genocide or racist acts; or “presenting selective, over-simplified, one-sided views of history.”
The project website does not note which criteria might apply to any specific monument or statue.
That’s not exactly true, as I show below.
There’s also an advisory committee vetting the monuments, with its members shown here (I’m not optimistic!), and, unlike San Francisco, Chicago is soliciting public feedback on the monuments. (But it would help to know why they’re on the list!). I will give them feedback.
The first one, “A Signal of Peace” seems to be problematic only because it displays a native American. It was intended by the sculptor (and his patron) to be a sign of respect for Native Americans as well as a lament for their oppression by whites:
Before the fair was even over, arrangements were made by wealthy Chicago lawyer and art patron Lambert Tree to purchase the sculpture for $3,000 cash. Offering it for permanent placement in Lincoln Park, Tree was clear in his intent that the monument was intended as a permanent symbol of respect for native peoples who were: “…..oppressed and robbed by government agents, deprived of their lands… shot down by soldiery in wars fomented for the purpose of plundering and destroying their race, and finally drowned by the ever westward tide of population.”
Are we not, then, to depict any Native Americans, even in this respectful and mournful (for their oppression) manner?
Here’s another Native American sculpture, (“Indians; the Bowman and the Spearman”) in Grant Park; I often look at and admire this when I drive downtown. And here’s why it’s to be scrutinized:
Impressive for their heroic scale and bristling energy, the sculptures have been criticized for their romanticized and reductive images of American Indians.
Reductive? Romanticized? It’s an admirable, admiring, and truly lovely piece of art. For crying out loud, most public statues are “romanticized,” not to mention “reductive”. What are we supposed to show: a Native American skinning a buffalo?
Here’s “Standing Lincoln,” a well known statue. Why is it bad? The site doesn’t say, but apparently Lincoln’s allowing a few Native Americans to be hanged (and pardoned many more)—as well as his early (but later changed) bigotry towards blacks—outweighs his emancipation of the slaves. It’s by the famous sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and comes with this note on the site (there’s no “reason” given to scrutinize this):
Many people who personally knew Lincoln and were alive at the time of the monument’s dedication commented on the imagery being a moving and accurate representation. As a guide, Augustus Saint-Gaudens used life casts of Lincoln’s face and hands made by Chicago sculptor Leonard Volk.
Benjamin Franklin gets scrutinized, too, for he owned two slaves but later freed them and became an abolitionist. So what’s the problem?
Franklin’s achievements in helping shape United States democracy as well as his role in other disciplines are well-documented historical facts. Historical archives reflect some negative personal views on people and groups not unusual for the time, but historians have noted that he was open-minded and would often shift in his positions. Franklin owned two slaves who served in household responsibilities, but he later freed both and became an outspoken abolitionist.
George Washington, by Daniel Chester French (a replica). No reason given, but of course Washington owned slaves. The site says this:
The monument is one of the finest examples of equestrian sculpture in Chicago, and is considered a major work by Daniel Chester French, whose later work included the marble sculpture of Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.
Why Leif Ericson is scrutinized baffles me, and no information is given. Yes, he may have made it to North America, but he didn’t “colonize it”. In fact, we know little about his exploits.
And woe to Ulysses S. Grant, who led the Union Army to victory over the Confederacy. He had one slave but set him free. The caption says this:
Grant pursued a number of unsuccessful ventures, including farming on his father-in-law’s Missouri plantation, where he purchased and quickly manumitted a slave, and working for his father, a fervent abolitionist, at the family’s Galena, Illinois leather goods business. Grant quickly proved himself a brilliant tactician and leader, rising to lead the Union forces by 1865.
Another statue, “The Alarm”, seems to be a dignified and respectful depiction of Native Americans. No reason is given why it’s on the list. Here are a few words:
Sculptor John J. Boyle grew up in Philadelphia and was trained at the Franklin Institute, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris. In preparation for Ryerson’s commission, Boyle spent two months observing Native American subjects and making numerous sketches and studies.
Are there any monuments that I think need to go? Given alternatives of explanatory plaques or counter-monuments, I found only one. But it’s already been taken down! I think the one below is invidious and divisive, and doesn’t honor anything except a massacre of settlers by Indians, not noting that most of the killing went the other way. Here’s the “Fort Dearborn Massacre”. A note from the site:
Industrialist George Pullman (1831-1897) commissioned this monumental bronze figural group to be placed near his Prairie Avenue mansion — which was believed to be the site of the attack on the garrison evacuating Fort Dearborn during the War of 1812. The work shows Potawatomie chieftain Black Partridge intervening on behalf of Margaret Helm, wife of the fort’s commander and the step-daughter of fur trader, John Kinzie. Danish sculptor Carl Rohl-Smith (in Chicago to create sculpture for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893), based his figures on sketches he made of Indian models who were held captive at Fort Sheridan in the aftermath of the massacre at Wounded Knee. Conceived in a sensationalist, luridly violent mode, the sculpture was long criticized by American Indian activists and was removed from public view in 1997.
It’s already gone! None of these should be destroyed; they should be preserved somewhere as examples of public art, no matter how misguided or lurid.
The New York Times details some pushback, but also gives one view of why Lincoln should be erased:
The committee’s list almost immediately drew criticism from some state leaders. “Never thought that statues of Abraham Lincoln or Ulysses S. Grant would be considered ‘controversial’ in the Land of Lincoln,” Representative Darin LaHood, a Republican who represents parts of Peoria and Springfield, wrote on Twitter. “This is detached from reason.”
Daniel Fountain, a professor of history at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., said that Lincoln’s legacy has come under scrutiny in the 21st century in part because, as a younger politician, his views reflected the white supremacist attitudes of most 19th-century politicians.
Professor Fountain noted that during his famous debate with Stephen Douglas, his rival in Illinois, Lincoln stated his opposition to letting Black people serve as jurors, marry white people or “attain any semblance of social equality.”
Lincoln’s views evolved during the Civil War, but those early statements remained “abysmal,” he said.
“For many, his flaws undermine his very real, significant achievements,” Professor Fountain said.
Well, Professor Fountain, for more people Lincoln’s achievements outweigh his flaws. How many people have to be offended before a statue is removed? And can’t we just add a plaque that he once held bigoted views but changed them? Why is that not enough? Woe to America if we have to pull down statues of Abe Lincoln!
In general I object to the erasure of history, for if we remove all monuments to people who, when morality changes over time, are found wanting, then almost all history will be gone.
The Atlantic just published what I see as the definitive way to regard monuments, and which of them really deserve to be removed. Click on the screenshot, and I do recommend that you read this thoughtful and reasonable take:
The issue of what to do with monuments and school names can be more complex than the cartoonish excesses of the woke left might indicate. Art’s impact on the public weal should not be the sole or leading measure of its worth—that way Stalinist “socialist realism” lies—but in certain cases it cannot be ignored.
Few would want a statue of Hitler or Mussolini or Tojo to stand in a town square, even if it was erected in the 1930s and thus could be said to be a historical artifact. Many of the Confederate statues in the South were commissioned in the dark days after the end of Reconstruction, when the Ku Klux Klan ran riot, Black people were terrorized and lynched, and the mythology of the “Lost Cause” was born. To treat such objects as if they were simply neutral cultural artifacts is to willfully misread history. Some public art is arguably so detrimental to social cohesion that a civic conversation about what to do with it is desirable.
In any case, the answer does not have to be to remove the “bad” public artworks. They can be curated, with explanatory material placing them in historical context. (Early Days was curated, but inadequately.) They can be balanced with other works: A German friend told me that in Hamburg, city officials dealt with a Nazi-built memorial glorifying war by commissioning a counter-memorial that criticized it. These works can be moved to a historic monument site, or to a museum—making explicit their status as aesthetic or historical objects, not exemplars of city values.
. . . In the end, self-righteous symbolic crusades like the school-renaming campaign must not be immune from criticism simply because they purport to fight racial injustice—that noble cause is debased by empty gestures that achieve nothing. Indeed, by creating conflict over trivial objectives—just turn on Fox News—they are more likely to harm the cause of societal progress and racial harmony than to advance it.
Yes, I shall be giving my input to the monument-inspection Pecksniffs, and perhaps to the mayor and my alderman.